When most of us think of inflammation, pain and swelling is what comes to mind, leading the majority of the population to think it’s flat out bad. But as I will discuss in this article, inflammation isn’t inherently bad, differing from situation to situation and can be either a good or a bad thing. Put simply, inflammation is the body’s response to immune stress. It is the body’s attempt to heal itself from injury, viruses, and damaged tissue.
There are two types of inflammation:
1. Acute inflammation is brought on by a sickness or external stimuli such as stubbing your toe, biting your tongue, or working out intensely. This type of inflammation is severe for a few days but eventually heals and the swelling/redness/soreness dissipates.
2. Chronic Inflammation is a bit different. This type can last for months and even years in the form of joint pain (arthritis), paralysis (atherosclerosis) and various autoimmune diseases.
When is Inflammation Good and When is it Bad?
You heard right, inflammation can be good for you since it is the main way your body heals itself. Knowing the difference between when it is helping you and when it is hindering you will aid your training, recovery, and overall general health. A good rule of thumb is to think of acute and short lasting inflammation as beneficial, while chronic and performance hindering inflammation is unhealthy. When it comes to training, every time you break down your muscle fibers through lifting weight, running, or any other type of motion that is strenuous on the body, acute inflammation is how your body repairs the micro tears in your muscles. Without inflammation you would never recover from exercise and this would lead to many problems similar to overtraining.
It’s once the acute inflammation becomes chronic that you should be concerned with reducing it. Most individuals who compete in marathons and extreme exercise routines without adequate rest can turn acute inflammation into chronic inflammation due to a constant breakdown of muscle and a lack of recovery to grow stronger. Chronic inflammation from overtraining can lead to a whole host of issues, from nagging pain, constant soreness, joint issues, sickness and fever, and in extreme cases even cancer.
Anybody who is experiencing a chronic injury, has recurring joint pain, or has an autoimmune disease (such as Celiac, Crones, Fibromyalgia or Addison’s), among other things can benefit from decreasing the amount of inflammation in their daily life. Many have heard of “the anti-inflammatory diet”, which is an excellent place to start. This diet is almost an exact replica of the Mediterranean diet, prioritizing fish, fruit, vegetables, healthy fats and a moderate amount of alcohol, such as red wine. The reason why fish is important in helping to lower inflammation comes from the level of Omega-3 fatty acids. These healthy fats are particularly helpful to keep joints pain free and healthy but are helpful in reducing both types of inflammation. The recommended amount sits at around three servings of fish a week. For those of you who don’t enjoy eating fish, you get the same benefits from a high quality fish oil supplement.
Most fruits and vegetables are high in antioxidants and vitamins, which can do wonders to help your body repair itself faster. Some of these include vitamin A/C/E, flavonoids like anthocyanins, catechins, epicatechin and quercetin. Whole grains such as brown rice and quinoa have been shown to lower inflammation in the body, as well as olive oil and nuts.
Surprisingly watermelon is quite useful for lowering inflammation as it has a cellular inhibitor called lycopene which can lower all types of inflammation. Lastly, some spices and herbs you put in your food can help reduce inflammation without you even knowing it. These include ginger, rosemary, cayenne, turmeric, cloves and nutmeg.
Besides a balanced diet there are supplements that can also help including the aforementioned fish oil, which along with a comprehensive multivitamin are probably the only two supplements you need to take for general health and reducing inflammation.
But if you are willing to spend a bit more then invest in Green tea which enhances bone and joint health, and tart cherry extract, which has been shown to significantly decrease key inflammatory markers.
Take Home Message
When it comes to recovery, our bodies are very good at it, from getting over the flu to healing that black eye, and even repairing the cartilage in your body. It is inflammation that makes it possible. In this new age of self-quantifying we hear of a word like inflammation and assume it is always bad, which as you’ve found out far from the truth. While chronic inflammation can lead to issues in the long run, acute inflammation is a necessary function that your body needs to do to allow you to grow stronger.
This fact is leading professionals to advise all active and health conscious individuals to actually avoid antioxidants pre/post workout as your body will respond to stimuli better and lead to you growing stronger and more resilient in the long run. As for sedentary individuals who lack physical activity, it’s never too late to adopt a Mediterranean diet and an exercise plan that teaches you to appreciate the suffering and reward of acute inflammation! So just remember, eat your fish and vegetables, and enjoy the soreness that comes with your workouts because it means you’re only getting stronger thanks to inflammation!